Tinder Hearth Bread
Bread is made of yeast, salt, flour and water. But what yeast? What salt, what flour? To Tim Semler, every ingredient is a critical distinction.
“Our bread tastes so good because ours is the best water in the world,” Semler said. “It’s amazing.” Across the back field from his Tinder Hearth bakery in Brooksville is a saltwater cove. That, too, must influence the bâtard loaves being formed on the wooden table in the sunny bake house to bake tomorrow. To hear him talk, you realize even the air is important to the bread-making process.
Semler, 33, a Brooksville native, makes artisanal bread in a massive wood-fired brick oven installed in the same house he grew up in. He and his wife, Lydia Moffet, a Deer Isle native, live adjacent to it with their children, two-week-old Bernard and three-year-old Kieran. It’s their tenth year in business.
“We’re getting to a good place in terms of community reputation, varied products, and selling in different places,” he said. “For any food business in this area, you have to be immensely creative and resilient.”
Semler tried a year at New School University in New York City, majoring in jazz and liberal studies. He still plays guitar in weekend gigs with the Soulbenders. Moffet was a political science/ecology major at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. After working various local jobs, they started majoring in bread, drawing mentorship from Bohemian Bread in Montpelier, Vt., and Hungry Ghost in Northampton, Mass. Their efforts started modestly in an outdoor brick oven in the field out back and have grown since.
It takes 36 hours to make their loaf, beginning with firing up the oven to 1,000 degrees F. When the radiant heat comes down to 700 degrees, it’s time to put the bread in. It’s a baking tempo that honors an ancient bread, not business, model.
“What sets us apart is sourdough and wood firing,” said Semler. “That shapes the schedule, feeling of the bread, timing, economic model—the whole system.”
Monday is fire and dough; Tuesday is bake and sell. Wednesday through Thursday, repeat to bake and sell on Friday. Their loaves sell for $7 apiece, yet they sell it all. “In summer, I don’t even have a loaf to eat in my own kitchen,” said Semler.
The six weeks of quadruple sales in summer anchor their sustainability. For instance, to satisfy the 1,000-croissant-a-week demand in the summer, Tinder Hearth needs 17 mostly part-time bakers and drivers to supply bread and pastries to stores in Deer Isle, Blue Hill, Ellsworth, Bangor and Bucksport. In winter, for 250 croissants a week, there are eight employees. Pastries are lucrative, and help leverage the real passion: bread.
Semler talks bread with a poet’s fervor and the granular knowledge of a biologist who understands baguettes at the molecular level. “The lactic acid in sourdough protects the dough from burning in the high heat,” he said. “Due to long fermentation, without yeast, all the grain gets fully saturated. Every molecule of starch unfurls like a fern and has water on all sides.” This achieves a prized hydration rate. “Then it becomes ‘a different food.’”
That said, sourdough is “not a formula,” said Semler. “It’s living, moody organisms. We open up the lid and say, ‘Talk to me!’”
What about gluten intolerance? “People tell me, ‘I can’t eat any wheat—but I can eat your pizza.’ We use the highest gluten flour available, but it’s sour dough, and full of water.”
Are Semler and Moffet satisfied? Yes, provided they get to keep their hands in the dough. “We’ve achieved sustainability. It’s working. Two kids, a new Honda, and remodeling the house. This year we’ve also started shipping bread to New York and Philadelphia.” Tinder Hearth is a bread terroir—living Maine water, air and organisms infiltrating the “big city.”